Disassociation: Breaking with Beard

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JBF LOGO GRAY WHITE

The James Beard Foundation held its annual awards ceremony earlier this month, an occasion Central Florida’s culinary community has come to observe as passover.

I have been a member and participant in the James Beard Foundation for over 30 years, almost since its inception. I often traveled to New York for the annual gala weekend events, a perk afforded to the regional judges. It was always a fun excuse to visit Manhattan and schmooze with writers, restaurateurs and chefs from around the country.

I just broke one of the foundation’s rules by telling you that I was a judge. But it doesn’t matter anymore: My association with the Beard Foundation has ended.

This has been coming for several years as I frustratedly watched local talent go unrecognized, usually to the benefit of New Orleans chefs who frequently dominated the South region’s nominations. (This year a chef from Mississippi won the regional award, so there’s that. But three of the five finalists were from New Orleans.)

The award system is set up in such a way that Orlando’s finest chefs might never be recognized. Rightly so, judges are pledged to vote only for restaurants they’ve eaten in or for chefs whose food they had experienced. That means the judges had to get here to discover the many good restaurants we have.

You’d think that would be easy, Orlando being the number one tourist destination in the world and all. Surely some of those 75 million visitors were also Beard judges.

But like so many of the people who come to Orlando, Beard judges come with their families. They stay in the tourist areas. They eat at the chain restaurants and they sneeringly tell people back home that Orlando has nothing but chains.

By the way, one of the finalists for the national Outstanding Restaurant award at this year’s gala was Jaleo in Washington, D.C., which, with the opening of its fifth restaurant at Disney Springs, is officially a chain restaurant. But it isn’t based in Orlando, so it’s ok for it to be considered good.

When I left my previous employer and was not as confined by strict journalistic detachment, I set a goal to bring a James Beard Award to Central Florida within two years. Eleven years later, I realize it may never happen.

Beard is happy to make money from Central Florida chefs and organizations. Money, it seems, is a main focus for the organization, with nearly every category at the annual gala sponsored by a major corporation. The annual Beard in Baldwin event in Baldwin Park donates proceeds to Beard’s National Scholars Program. (It’s actually required to do so in order to use the Beard name.) And the dinners held at the Beard House are huge moneymakers for the not-for-profit organization.

To be sure, it’s a worthy cause to help educate a new generation of cooks. But is anyone telling them that they should avoid Orlando if they want to be recognized for excellence?

We’ve had many chefs from the area cook at the Beard House in Greenwich Village. It’s considered a great honor. I’ve shared in that excitement over the years and have even travelled to New York on occasion to attend and document some of those dinners. Most recently, Kathleen Blake of the Rusty Spoon was there. It’s still prestigious. But in a just world, Blake would have by now attended an awards ceremony as a finalist and ultimately climbed the stairs to accept her medal. And Scott Hunnel, too. And Greg Richie. And Kevin Fonzo. And James and Julie Petrakis. And several of the other area chefs who I and my fellow regional judges managed to get on the semifinalists ballot but could never get advanced to the finals.

So I’m done. I will continue to share the news with you about chefs going to cook at the Beard House. I’ll even mention Beard nominations and citations when pertinent.

I will continue to be a cheerleader for our many talented chefs, but I will no longer be part of the hype to promote the Beard Foundation for the benefit of the Beard Foundation when it is to the detriment of the men and women whose culinary skills I believe are worthy of higher recognition.

As to the pursuit of due acknowledgement for culinary excellence, I believe our local chefs should aim higher.